“I like to start out in the dark,” my SoulCycle instructor announced. He was surrounded by me and 50-plus other people, about to mount a bicycle stationed atop a stage. He was somehow completely serious. The lights flickered off, and he picked up lit candles and placed them in corners of the room.
It was a Saturday morning, and after three spinning classes in the last four days, I’d changed.
I have almost cried while watching a Clint Eastwood-directed movie and, of my own volition, I have been listening to an unhealthy amount of The Chainsmokers. This is to say: I was ready for SoulCycle, the new apex of spinning in Philadelphia (also: possibly a cult). Into the darkness!
When I last took a spin class before this month, there weren’t any candles.
I know that sentence makes me seem old, but it really had been a while. I had last spun (spinned?) in 2010, when I lived in Dallas, and when SoulCycle was confined to two New York studios, way before its expansion throughout NYC and across the entire country.
I spun (spinned?) at my 24-Hour Fitness gym, which had showers that always needed repair and wasn’t even open 24 hours. All I remember from those classes was constantly hearing the song “Bulletproof” by La Roux. I stopped going after I realized getting up at 5:45 a.m. a couple times a week was going to subtract years from my life.
By my count, Philadelphia has five spinning studios and several more classes offered at gyms and yoga or barre studios throughout the city. SoulCycle is the newest, having opened in March. Those five are not nearly as many as New York or DC. DC, which has half the population of Philly, has more than 10 cycling studios, including three SoulCycles and two Flywheels. But five studios is still four more than Philly had in 2010. Combined, they offer more than 150 classes a week, with somewhere from 30-50 seats a class.
At a cost of somewhere between $20-$30 per seat, that’s about $195,000 every week, which equates to a whopping $7.8 million a year that could conceivably be spent on Philly spinning.
The good thing is your first rides are free or discounted. And, being a crazy person, and because of the recent entry of SoulCycle in the market, I decided to spin my way through the city in a week. That meant four classes in five days, at Ciclo, Flywheel, Body Cycle and SoulCycle. (I needed at least a one-day break, and also there was no way in hell I was making the loooong trek to Manayunk for The Wall, the fifth studio. I am crazy enough to spin four times in a week but I am not crazy enough to visit a place so far away from the El or BSL to exercise.)
Now, I’m not here to bash the spinning trend. (Spoiler alert: Well, maybe a little at SoulCycle.) I liked spinning before and, going into this week, was sure I’d still like it, even as an old-school exerciser who runs and lifts a couple times a week and whose last workout apparel purchase was a $5 pair of orange shorts at a CVS. That’s because I’m also a sucker for intense workouts that bring back the experience of being on a sports team, with somebody yelling at me to speed up unless I want to cause the world to collapse on itself and hot jams. Spin classes provide all three.
When I passed by Ciclo a few weeks ago, the exterior gave the impression that it was similar to SoulCycle — a trendy studio in Fishtown, one of Philly’s trendiest ‘hoods. It is not. I arrived for a Tuesday spin at 11 a.m., and there was sunlight. There were windows. I could see SEPTA buses passing by. How was I supposed to join a cult when I could actually see the outside world?
I still enjoyed the spin. I assumed it would be a perfect appetizer to the other studios, since it was a difficult class but it somehow didn’t matter that it took me 10 minutes to realize I was supposed to be turning the wheel to the right when the instructor said to take it up a notch.
Later in the week I called owner Mina Carroll, who said her goal with Ciclo was to basically provide an alternative to places like SoulCycle. Classes cost about half as much. Carroll is a Riverwards native — “blue-collar people, just white-collar educated” — and wanted to create an atmosphere befitting her background.
“There’s plenty of times when a client says they can’t afford it and I always work with them,” she said. “We’re not like other studios. One of our other regulars wanted to come so bad in an ice storm, she fell and broke her leg. She was a bartender and we put together a couple rides for her and every dollar went to her.”
Carroll has never been to the trendier places, not to Flywheel or SoulCycle.
“Somebody told me,” she said, “it’s like spinning in a spaceship.”
They gave me cycling shoes? Things were getting serious. After thirty seconds of panicking I wouldn’t be able to latch onto the pedals, I got strapped into bike No. 4, in the front row. The lights went dark, leaving traces of blue light and the glow of computer screens set in front of us keeping track of our pace for illumination. It wasn’t a spaceship, exactly, but was kind of like Space Mountain. Within a few minutes, the instructor asked us to rock back and forth, in sync, while standing and pedaling and listening to a late 2000s rap song.
And I got into it — T-Pain was being played at a loud volume. Of course I loved it.
The instructor yelled something along the lines of, “It’s not an exercise, it’s a lifestyle,” but mostly she was telling us how to set our pace and when to go faster, especially us in the front row. At the end, Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars” played, and sprinting through the song while testing how much torq I could produce on the bike was the only thing that made sense.
When I got home, I could not unwind. I instinctively turned on The Chainsmokers — I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I know nobody ever had that thought before. I listened to the terrible song “Break Up Every Night” three times in the next hour while writing.
Friday: Body Cycle
My legs were feeling good! Originally I was thinking of doing just three classes in five days, but given that I wasn’t in pain — and because experiential journalism — I set my sights on a fourth class at Body Cycle. It’s Philadelphia’s OG spin studio, having opened in 2010. Unlike the others, which cost between about $10 and $20 for a first ride, Body Cycle offers the first class entirely free.
I found two classes still available Friday evening. One was the BCS Ride. The other was the Explicit BCS Ride, which I thought at first must be higher difficulty. But! A quick Google search told me the “explicit” just refers to the music — it’s the same as other workouts but with a soundtrack of unedited rap throughout. In other words, sounded like a dream.
And it pretty much was. The instructor said her computer was acting funny, so she was just shuffling through random songs. Yet she killed it: Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA,” Kanye West’s “Power,” Ace Hood’s “Bugatti.” The Explicit BCS Ride felt like being in a bar in 2013, except you get to cycle instead of question whether you’re drunk enough to talk to other people. I had to stop myself from yelling “Bugatti” a few times.
After this class, I was exhausted. Proof: I watched “Sully” on HBO and almost cried when a father talks to his son for the first time after the plane has landed in the Hudson.
What were these…emotions? What would happen to me when they broke me at SoulCycle tomorrow?
I woke up at 5:45 a.m., way before my alarm. My legs that felt so good the day before had turned to stone. I was panicking about whether I’d ruin my body by doing so many spin classes in such a short time. Like a teen searching Yahoo Answers, I started Googling to see whether a fourth spin class in a week after seven spin-free years had ever led to death. There’s was answer, so the possibility loomed. But I did learn, conclusively, that spinning either makes you gain a ton of weight or lose a ton of weight.
I fell back asleep for a few minutes, and when I got up, I had the adrenaline I usually have before running a race. I listened to some Chainsmokers because I had to: This. Is. SoulCycle.
Where Flywheel and Body Cycle had the soft tones of a yoga studio, SoulCycle has white walls splashed with yellow paint and neon lighting advising you to “find your soul.” SoulCycle is the only studio that forced me to sign a waiver. So death was a possibility, hmmm. I cursed Yahoo Answers for letting me down.
This was also the only studio with rules — at least rules I noticed. They were posted on a big board outside the classroom. I’m paraphrasing, but they basically said: Don’t talk to your neighbor during the spinning session and be sure you don’t smell. Good thing I had showered last night.
Then the instructor arrived, and immediately started apologizing. He was listening to his playlist on the way to the studio, he explained, and realized one of the songs had a dirty word and there was no way he could play it in front of us. He had stopped at a Starbucks to fix everything.
This was not a good start.
The next 45 minutes went about as well. The music was all house, no pop or hip-hop. The instruction was all motivational platitudes, not a planned workout where we’re recommended to bike faster or prepare for a hill.
Examples: “The rain doesn’t phase us. You make the sun.” “There’s good and bad in this world. Take the good and turn it right.”
For the bad, we leaned forward, heads down, eyes closed because we were supposed to trust we can get through this. We essentially told to stop biking several times and just listen. I found this to be the constant for SoulCycle. There’s really not that much cycling.
At another point, the mirrors fogged up as we learned something about how expectation was trapping us so we couldn’t quite see our real selves. If only we could make these societal restrictions disappear by pseudo-biking in a room full of candles! Sure enough, the fog lifted by the end of the song.
I’m a fan of wellness. I like yoga and fitness, and I’ve even prepared my own kale (once). I time a motivational quote to appear on my phone on a daily basis. But SoulCycle was too much. It’s kind of hard to pedal quickly when you’re trying to figure out how to make the sun shine.
The workout ended with a remix of “Hotline Bling” while we stretch. It must have been the edited version.
I would like to spin again — in moderation, for the sake of both body and wallet. But not at SoulCycle. Ciclo has the old-fashioned feel and low price. Flywheel has energy and a competitive vibe without going over the top. Body Cycle has the best workout and music selection. In relative terms, SoulCycle is a cooldown.
This opinion probably puts me in a rare camp, someone who likes the fancy spin classes but doesn’t want to go full spaceship. My inclination was somewhat confirmed when I went to Joe Coffee later on Saturday morning. Next to me, two people raved about SoulCycle. One of them was apparently the same class as me. The other was complaining how he didn’t sign up in time and couldn’t even get into a class on Sunday.
Maybe he knew the secret to getting the sun to shine. I hadn’t figured it out. I walked outside carrying my umbrella and into the rain.